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The Importance of Decarbonizing the Built Environment

Focusing on decarbonizing our built environment through carbon-negative construction and making our current buildings more energy efficient can reduce emissions and support more equitable, healthier communities.


Every day, we walk, drive, and bike around our cities, towns, and villages hearing how climate change is going to affect our daily lives. Yet, as we move around these places, we often forget that the buildings we work, shop, and live in also contribute to climate change themselves.

But they can be agents in the fight against this crisis, too.

The buildings that surround us, along with the roads and bridges we traverse, encompass what is known as the “built environment.” Simply, the built environment is what we’ve created – the man-made structures and byways that provide us with living, working, and recreational spaces. 

But why focus on our built environment when there are so many other Big Polluters out there?

Well, you might not know this, but the built environment emits a lot of carbon. Nearly 40 percent of carbon emissions globally, in fact. Moreover, cement and concrete manufactures are responsible for around 8 percent of global GHG emissions alone, more than any country except for the US and China.

By focusing on decarbonizing our built environment through carbon-negative future construction and making our current buildings more energy efficient, we can reduce emissions and support more equitable, healthier communities.

The Problem

We have made strides in making our buildings more efficient and using less energy in their operations. But even with this progress, we are nowhere near where we need to be.  

Building emissions are made up of two broad types:

  • Operating carbon emissions — those that come from heating, electrification, and cooling of buildings; and
  • Embodied carbon emissions — the emissions from the mining, harvesting, processing, manufacturing, transportation, and installation of building materials.

Embodied emissions, in particular, could be a significant driver of future climate change if early action isn’t taken. Over the next 40 years, it is estimated that another 2.5 trillion square feet of new building space will be built, that roughly amounts to a brand-new New York City every 30 days.

Between now and 2050, embodied carbon could likely be responsible for almost half of total emissions from all those new buildings. While operating carbon emissions can be reduced over the lifetime of a building through efficiency measures, embodied carbon emissions are locked in as soon as new buildings are constructed.

But new buildings are only part of the problem. By 2050, it is estimated that two-thirds of current building space will still be here, meaning the inefficient buildings and technologies that exist today will still be present and polluting – unless we upgrade them or fully rebuild.

Presently, we are not doing a great job of fixing these issues. The current renovation rate of existing buildings is less than 1 percent. However, a renovation rate of least 3 percent is necessary to help meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

We need to more than triple the rate of renovations to get where we need to be.

The Solutions

Here are two big things we can do to lower the emissions of our built environment and fight the climate crisis.

Energy Efficient Buildings

Retrofitting buildings to be more energy efficient can be one of the fastest, most cost-effective ways of cutting the operating emissions of existing buildings.

Buildings can make big changes to their energy efficiency through relatively simple means too:

And any building can do it. Take New York City’s iconic (and older) Empire State Building. It has reduced its energy use by 40 percent

Carbon-Negative Buildings

In order to meet our climate goals, new construction needs to be as close to net-zero emissions as possible – or, even better, carbon-negative.

A carbon-negative building goes beyond zero emissions and actually produces more energy than the building needs and feeds that additional energy to the grid. These buildings typically produce this energy from solar panels on the building.

One great example is the Powerhouse Brattørkaia in Norway, which produces more than twice as much electricity as it consumes daily, and supplies renewable energy to itself, neighboring buildings, electric buses, cars, and boats through a local micro grid.

“Energy-positive buildings are the buildings of the future. The mantra of the design industry should not be ‘form follows function’ but ‘form follows environment’,” said Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, founder of design and architecture firm Snøhetta.

Carbon-negative projects make significant contributions to help address local carbon intensity and the damaging impacts of past building practices and lifestyles. They are proof that with enough ingenuity, we can do just about anything we put our minds to.

What You Can Do

“The effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change will be won or lost in cities,” former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said.

And no small part of what he means has to do with drastically reducing the emissions from our built environment.

Luckily, the renewable revolution is well underway – but to change everything, we need everybody.

Will you join us?

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